QUESTIONS about identity and prejudice lie at the heart of the Hillsborough cover-up, but it’s that oft-derided Scouser spirit that has finally won the 23-year battle for justice, finds Paul Forsyth
FOR most of the morning, they slow up, one by one, to pause at the Shankly Gates. The most famous entrance to Anfield Stadium has long been a distraction to passing traffic but today it is more so than usual, with dozens of shirts and scarves tied to the wrought-iron spars, as well as a billowing banner on which is written: “Justice at last. RIP.”
Over to the left is Liverpool Football Club’s memorial to the 96 supporters who died in the Hillsborough disaster. A flame burns behind glass to keep their memory alive, and the victims are remembered with flowers, faded photographs and a series of poignant messages. “It’s taken too long,” reads one. “The truth is out,” says another.
The taxi drivers have been busy, ferrying folk back and forth to the ground. Among them is Steven Jones, a Scot who has supported the club since the 1960s. Had he not been working on 15 April 1989, he would have attended the FA Cup semi-final against Nottingham Forest. “I was supposed to go,” he says. “I went to all the semi-finals. But I was working that day. It has always played on my mind. I was lucky.”
Like Bill Shankly, whose management transformed the club forever, Jones was originally from Ayrshire, and there was never any doubt as to which team he would follow when he moved south in 1970. When he says he fell in love with Liverpool, he doesn’t just mean the club. He means the city and its people.
“The perception of them as whingeing Scousers is totally wrong. I’ve never met people so nice in my life. They are the closest to the Scottish I can find. If you criticise them, or their club, they can be very touchy, but as a Scot, I get their psyche.”
Questions about identity, about stereotypes and prejudice, are at the heart of the Hillsborough story. Not only do they explain why so many were allowed to perish 23 years ago, they are central to the subsequent cover-up, the full extent of which was shockingly revealed last week by an independent report.
Liverpool is like no other city in Britain, except perhaps Glasgow. A sea port with a strong industrial heritage and a large immigrant population, most of them Irish Catholic, its people learned long ago that if they didn’t stand up for themselves they would be knocked down. As neglect, and with it urban decline, set in after the Second World War, so did its working-class values become more entrenched. By the 1980s, they had Derek Hatton, the Toxteth riots and a complete breakdown in their relationship with the police. As documents would reveal 30 years later, Margaret Thatcher, the then Prime Minister, was urged by her chancellor Geoffrey Howe to consider abandoning Liverpool to a process of “managed decline”.
Football, and its followers, were looked upon in the same way. The response to a nationwide hooligan problem was to cage spectators behind perimeter fences and treat them all as a sub-species. Thatcher wanted each to be issued with an ID card. The 1985 Heysel Stadium disaster, when Liverpool fans rioted in Brussels, impacted on the way Hillsborough was handled.
Jack Straw, the former Home Secretary, said last week that there had been a “culture of impunity” in the police service at that time. He claimed the Thatcher government needed a “partisan force” to deal with industrial unrest such as the miners’ strike.
It would go some way to explaining police failures at Hillsborough. Inside the stadium, officers were said to have turned their back on dying fans who cried for help. Afterwards, when their reaction to the tragedy was called into question, they made scapegoats of those same supporters.
Sheila Coleman, of the Hillsborough Justice campaign, says: “When you put it in the context of the 1980s, and football supporters generally, Liverpool supporters specifically, then the recipe was there to make it easy to demonise a city. We had a Tory government under Margaret Thatcher, and there was a clearly a north-south divide in the country. Football supporters had a reputation, and Liverpool had been battered as a city. It had developed a militant reputation. Basically, within that context, it was easier to frame people.”
And frame them they did, in all the ways that were so painfully confirmed last week. Almost as disturbing as their warped version of events was the widespread willingness to accept it. Not nearly enough people outside Liverpool questioned what was the most unlikely of narratives – that it has taken the city 23 years to prove its innocence says a lot about the way it is viewed by the rest of the country.
Neil Atkinson, of the Anfield Wrap, an award-winning podcast, radio show and website about football, fashion and culture in Liverpool, says: “What staggers me is the way the official line was bought, hook, line and sinker. Because they were football supporters, because they were from Liverpool, because they were deemed to be working class... the culture at that time was ‘it doesn’t matter as much.’ ”
Too few have taken Liverpool seriously down the years, as its pantheon of fictional characters demonstrates. The Royle Family. Harry Enfield’s Scousers. Some were created with the best of intentions, only to later become figures of fun, such as Yosser Hughes – “gies a job” – and Jimmy Corkhill from Brookside, the Channel 4 soap-opera in which no social ill was left unturned.
It is as though the rest of Liverpool doesn’t exist. Its black and Chinese communities predate others in Britain. The proportion of the population who are gay is said to be comparable with San Francisco. A recent influx of foreign students has also enriched the city’s cultural melting pot.
Its reputation as a deprived, crime-ridden city in which it is wise not to park your car – assuming you prefer wheels to bricks – is not entirely without justification. Jimmy Ambrose, born and brought up there, noticed the difference when he returned after a few years living in Essex. “Down there, I paid £460 insurance on my motor. When I renewed it here, it was £1,200.”
But many of the clichés no longer apply. EU money was ploughed into Liverpool during the 1990s. In 2008, it was the European Capital of Culture. Manufacturing has given way to tourism, which exploits the city’s rich musical tradition – underpinned by the Beatles story – as well as its unique architectural heritage. From the Albert Dock, you can still see the mythical Liver Birds, but not before the new Liverpool Museum, an admittedly incongruous addition to the Pier Head. The Liverpool One open-air shopping development is the largest in Britain.
Liverpudlians are intensely proud of themselves and their city. Some say it is the only place in Britain where the local dialect is growing stronger. There is never a dull conversation. Willy Russell, the city’s famous playwright, once said: “The nature of the spoken word in Liverpool is, for writers, as the sky and the light must have been to the Impressionists.”
And, yes, they can have fun at their own expense. Stewart Lee, the provocative English comedian, realised as much at a Liverpool gig when he embarked on a sketch about the “managed decline” proposed by the Tories. “But you managed that decline pretty well yourself,” he added, at which point there was a nervous pause, then laughter.
Family loyalty is another character trait, born perhaps of the Catholic background, which explains the long and tireless fight by relatives of those who died in 1989. Across the road from Anfield Stadium, among the red-brick, terraced rows, one of which is almost completely boarded up, the Hillsborough Justice campaign has a shop in which the work is only just beginning. A clock on the wall bearing the slogan “Don’t buy the Sun” is still ticking. And campaigners are organising collection buckets with renewed vigour.
There is relief that they have been vindicated, satisfaction that their campaign, which led some to brand Liverpool “self-pity city”, has been justified. There is also fresh anger about the extent of the cover-up, particularly the revelation that up to 41 of the victims could have been saved.
Despite the banner on the Shankly Gates, justice has yet to be done, which is the next step of the fight. The process already is moving fast, with the local newspaper publishing a long list of “The Accused”, from the coroner and the council to the chief superintendent and the FA.
The hope is that all this could change the way Liverpool is treated, the way it is viewed by the rest of the country, but nothing is being taken for granted. The Daily Telegraph did not see fit to mention last week’s story on their front page. Sir Norman Bettison, the most senior police officer still in service who was involved on that fateful day, continues to insist that fans’ behaviour had contributed to the disaster.
Ambrose is like many Liverpool fans, wary of believing in a system that has failed you before. It is difficult to have faith in justice when you have developed a deep-rooted distrust of the police. He says that his daughter once saw them looting a shoe store that had been burgled in Kirby. His son, he adds, was stopped in the street and told by a police officer that he would be “fitted up for drugs”.
“I just feel like nothing will happen,” says Ambrose. “There has been a cover-up, and if they can do it once, they can do it again. They will probably blame it on the two who are dead. That copper has come out and said he still blames the fans. Even after all this, I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of people still think that way.”
It remains to be seen how far they can take this, how much they can change, what they can do for Liverpool on a national scale, but even if they are halted here, they can be proud of what they have done already. Margaret Aspinall, of the Hillsborough Families Support Group, says: “We’ve exonerated our fans and I’m so pleased for our city. Our city takes an awful lot of stick. Whingeing Scousers – that’s me. But we’ve been proven right. We’ve been right all along.”
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